Speaking with an Accent OR “You’re not from around here, are you?”

Heel-and Coo © 2013 “Not A Scottish Lass”

Heel-and Coo © 2013 “Not A Scottish Lass”

It was a dreich (in the words of my neighbor, *Merida) day in the Highlands, not unlike many of the days preceding it, and I needed to get out of the house. I bundled up, layer upon layer (until there were a sufficient number of layers to keep me warm enough while still ensuring my rain coat would button) and headed to the pub down the street for a Sunday roast. After ordering at the register I found a table to sit down at, dry off a bit, drink my cider, and read a book. An older man and young boy sat at a table across from me and when their sandwiches and chips came, the older man asked for the malt vinegar on my table. I don’t recall what I said to the man as I handed him the malt vinegar, but I remember what he said to me:

Why, you’re not a Scottish lass, are ye!?!

ac·cent (ˈak-ˌsent, chiefly British -sənt) n.

2: a distinctive manner of expression: as a : an individual’s distinctive or characteristic inflection, tone, or choice of words —usually used in plural b : a way of speaking typical of a particular group of people and especially of the natives or residents of a region (accent. 2013. In Merriam-Webster.com. Retrieved February 21, 2013)

Accents have always fascinated me quite a bit; in the words of my Croatian roommate, “You Americans, you just love accents,” but who doesn’t really (depending on the accent, I suppose)? An accent can tell you a lot about a person, where they are from (geographically), socio-economic status, ethnicity, etc… Just the other night, a man came into work and the second he opened his mouth to ask for something I knew exactly where he was from. He was from Scotland; Edinburgh to be a bit more precise, and he was very surprised when I was able to pinpoint the location. When I guessed, I didn’t actually know he was from Edinburgh, I did, however, know a couple of things:

  1. his accent was Scottish
  2. a long list of Scottish accents that were not his

His accent brought forth, for me, a range of feelings:

  • Homesickness: I don’t know if one can call it that because I’m not Scottish, but I am missing Scotland quite a bit at this moment and some very lovely things and people who live there.
  • Sadness: I accidentally left a piece of my heart there with someone this last time.
  • Familiarity: His accent was like a warm blanket wrapped around me. No it was not the Glaswegian vernacular (often dripping with euphemisms I’ll never understand) of my Scottish beau, but it did take me back a bit and was nice to hear all the same.

Where do accents come from?

Melting Pot

The pens at Ellis Island, main hall. These people have passed the first mental inspection.

Accents may indicate many things, including:
Geographic origin
Ethnic identity
Social class
Native language
Individual experiences

While I’ve never really thought of myself as having an accent (at least not while in the ‘States) because of where I’m from, geographically, I’m constantly being told that I do, in fact, have one. Case in point:

At a “First Timer and New Member” breakfast at a professional conference in San Diego at 7 a.m. on a Saturday morning (these conference organizers really do hate people), I asked a petite older woman in front of me, “Is this the queue?”

I had no idea this simple question could solicit such an excited response at such an ungodly hour of the morning.

“Oh, you’re Canadian. I’m Canadian! What part of Canada are you from!?”

“I’m not. I’m from the ‘States.”

She frowned, disappointed at the loss of what she thought was a co-pat “Oh, it’s quite peculiar to hear an American use the word ‘queue’.”

While I’m from the Western United States, I spent my summers bobbing back and forth between my maternal grandparents who lived near the Canadian border. Apparently I had picked something up, linguistically, over my summers spent in the North, an accent. Yes, there were regional and even ethnic terms I had grown up with or had learned during my summers, but it’s the accent that surprises me. I have one brother and we do not share the same accent. When speaking I stress different syllables than he does. How does this happen? There are several years between us in age, but we grew up together in the same house with the same parents, yet he takes great joy in making fun of my pronunciation of certain words on a fairly regular basis. So, where does this alleged accent come from?

      • Geographic origin: Western United States
      • Locality: We’ll keep this anonymous
      • Ethnic identity: Norwegian-American
      • Social class: Middle
      • Native language: English
      • Individual experiences: Loads of them

I’m not saying definitely that any of the above bulleted points have anything to do with whether or not I have an accent, but it seems they are likely factors that contribute to the reasons why I use certain words more than others to express an idea or emphasize one syllable over another. What about all of you out there?

What is your accent? Where does it come from?


For those of you interested, you might want to check out the “Regional Dialect Meme“. It’s a YouTube series of English speakers from different regions. There is a list of 30 words to pronounce and questions to respond to and is really quite interesting.

*Name changed for the sake of anonymity





2 thoughts on “Speaking with an Accent OR “You’re not from around here, are you?”

  1. Amazing, thanks for sharing your story with me yesterday too :) I’m in love with linguistics and all that jazz after studying it at uni, in Newcastle for 3 years. I’m from Dorset in the south of the UK…My southern friends tend to think I sound northern now and my northern friends think I sound southern. I have no idea what 2 years in Xhina has done to this!

    • American Burd

      Isn’t it funny how accents work?! I’m in Rome and have a colleague from the state of Texas. She keeps apologizing for her Southern accent, but she’s got none at all and I’ve got loads of family there, so I’m familiar with the accent! I would never guess she was from the South, much less Texas. I mentioned to her that I’m often mistaken for Canadian because of my accent but she said she can’t hear anything. I guess it’s all perspective, but when I go home, my friends and even my brother has commented on my accent as it can be all over the place at times.

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